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(Yonhap Interview) IOC official overseeing PyeongChang's Olympic preparations in love with S. Korea

2017/09/04 08:15

By Yoo Jee-ho

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Sept. 4 (Yonhap) -- Gunilla Lindberg, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) official in charge of overseeing PyeongChang's 2018 Winter Games preparations, has been coming to South Korea for the better part of a decade.

She is the head of the IOC's Coordination Commission on PyeongChang, which will host South Korea's first Winter Olympics. Before PyeongChang won the bid to host the 2018 Games seven years ago, Lindberg led the IOC's Evaluation Commission on the then-candidate city.

By her count, Lindberg has visited South Korea 32 times, and the veteran sports administrator has seen virtually everything the country has to offer -- which is just the way she likes it.

"Every time, I fall more and more in love with your country," the Swedish official told Yonhap News Agency in an interview last Wednesday in PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul. Lindberg led her Coordination Commission for its final meeting in PyeongChang before the Olympics.

Even though most of Lindberg's visits have been tight and have involved "discussing technical things," Lindberg said she has managed to take some time to enjoy the "beautiful nature" of PyeongChang and its region.

Gunilla Lindberg, head of the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission on PyeongChang, speaks in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Aug. 30, 2017. (Yonhap) Gunilla Lindberg, head of the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission on PyeongChang, speaks in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Aug. 30, 2017. (Yonhap)

"We've been fortunate enough to be here both when it's very, very cold, and also when it's warm. We've seen the beautiful summer you have," she said. "I am sure even after the Games, I'll come back and visit your country."

   Perhaps no other official at the IOC is better positioned to speak of PyeongChang's transformation from a little-known ski resort town into a Winter Olympics host with state-of-the-art facilities. Lindberg, an IOC vice president from 2004 to 2008, spoke of her "interesting journey" as she's been able to witness PyeongChang's development firsthand.

"(The Coordination Commission) started six years ago, and we came to a place we didn't know so much about," she said. "Now, everything is changing. When you start a project like this, it becomes a big part of your life. You want it to be really good in the end."

   Lindberg said it's important to build strong relationships with her working partners, namely the organizing committee for PyeongChang, and noted that the IOC and PyeongChang are like "families" now.

"We've been working like a team," she said. "We've always managed to work very close with each other and have a very open dialogue."

   Lindberg said PyeongChang needs to make a final push with its transportation plans and also its services to athletes. The host city must also ensure stadiums will be full across the Olympics.

"All the hardware is there," Lindberg said. "You'll welcome about 90 countries. It's a big operational task to find volunteers and select them, or to find parking space, and (address) minor technical things. It's even more difficult when you're organizing Winter Games because you're dependent on weather conditions, things you can't foresee."

   Lindberg added PyeongChang must ensure plans are put in place to use the Olympic venues after the competition, because the IOC doesn't want "white elephants." PyeongChang has said it has prepared post-Olympic plans for 10 of its 12 competition venues.

Lindberg said not every burden should be borne by PyeongChang in this regard because the Winter Games are "a national project."

   Though this may be a national project, PyeongChang has had trouble generating buzz among the public. In a survey conducted on 1,000 South Koreans in July, only 35.1 percent said they were interested in PyeongChang 2018, down from 40.3 percent in May. Also, just 41.1 percent of the polled said they were looking forward to the 2018 Winter Olympics, compared to 44 percent from May.

Lindberg said with the most Olympics, the interest level among the people in host cities tends to rise at the last minute. She also said once the torch relay starts on Nov. 1, when the countdown to the Olympics reaches 100 days, will make PyeongChang 2018 "more visible" among the general public.

And when the winter sports season starts later in the year and South Korean athletes start to excel, then people will want to take in the Winter Olympics on their home soil even more, Lindberg added.

"This is once in a lifetime. It's not something that's coming back every year," she said. "Koreans are very proud of their country and sportsmen. You're a big sporting country."

   Lindberg said South Korean President Moon Jae-in should also provide a boost to PyeongChang's promotional efforts. Moon was recently named an honorary ambassador for PyeongChang 2018. Lindberg, who paid Moon a courtesy visit in July, said the president is "a really enthusiastic sports fan."

   "He wants his country and his people to be very successful," she said. "You could feel he was interested in sports. He's a very good ambassador (for PyeongChang)."

   Moon has also expressed hopes of seeing North Korean athletes in PyeongChang. Seoul is also pushing for a joint Korean team in women's hockey.

IOC President Thomas Bach has said the IOC has extended an invitation to North Korea to take part in PyeongChang 2018 and that the IOC will help North Korean athletes qualify for the Olympics. Lindberg sang the same tune, saying the IOC has "good cooperation" with North Korean athletes but the main thing is for them to qualify for Olympic events on merit.

South Korea's desire to have North Korean athletes here corresponds with PyeongChang's objective of promoting peace through the Olympics. Bach also said Moon's gesture toward dialogue and reconciliation was "in the spirit of Olympism."

   On the other hand, tensions haven't abated on the divided Korean Peninsula, as North Korea has continued to launch missiles and issue war threats.

Lindberg said the IOC is "following the situation very closely."

   "We're a peace organization, maybe the biggest peace organization in the world," she said. "Our motto is to gather the youth of the world in friendship and Olympic values, and we hope everybody is respecting that."